What the IPCC Report Means for Your Tech

"Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of the IPCC Working Group II.

The UN recently released its latest report on climate change. While the results are a little bleak, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel and some time left to reach it. Each sector needs to look at its own energy and carbon use in order to achieve the savings we need. The ICT sector can do more than most, and our use of tech is one way we can help turn the tide. 

What is the report?

This is the second in a three-part series from the IPCC – the UN’s body to provide the latest information on climate change. It draws on thousands of academic studies to outline the impacts on society and the planet both now and into the future. You can read the report here.

So, where are we now?

In short, the findings weren’t great: climate change is occurring faster than anticipated. The impact of this can be felt in both the human and natural worlds:

  • Half of the species they assessed have tried to avoid rising temperatures by moving towards the poles and to higher ground if on land.
  • The area burned by wildfires doubled in western North America between 1984 and 2017.
  • The world’s biggest cities have seen a 500% increase in extreme heat since 1980.

Where are we heading?

There has been lots of talk about limiting warming to 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels in recent years. This is with good reason, as it will help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Unfortunately, we’re on track to consistently exceed 1.5⁰C in four of the five scenarios the IPCC modelled. The only way we can get back below this point is if emissions reach net zero around 2050. This is shown in the bottom line of the graph below from CNN, which models each of these scenarios and the warming impact they are expected to have. However, in order to keep on track, we need to achieve half of these savings by 2030. This does not look likely to happen based on current behaviour.

ipcc graph

What would this mean?

Even temporarily passing 1.5⁰C will create severe impacts to humans and nature, but staying above 1.5⁰C would mean we could lose control of climate change. This is because natural stores of greenhouse gases like forests, peatlands, and ice sheets are being burned, drained, and melted by rising temperatures, which causes those gases to be emitted and amplifies global warming.

As shown below, the percentage of land animals that will face very high risk of extinction in the mid- to long-term (2041-2100) increases in line with the temperature:

  • 1.5⁰C warming: up to 14% face extinction
  • 2⁰C warming: up to 18%
  • 3⁰C warming: up to 29%
  • 4⁰C warming: up to 39%
  • 5⁰C warming: up to 48%

Thankfully, there is still hope for avoiding the worst. The report says the long-term impacts “depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions” and escalate with rising temperatures. So, we need to act, and we need to act now.

What can we do about it?

There’s still time to mitigate the worst impacts, which is why carbon footprint measurements and reductions are so important.

A carbon footprint is split into three scopes, as shown in the GHG Protocol image below. Scope 1 covers direct emissions from fuels burned on site (e.g., petrol and diesel); scope 2 includes indirect emissions burned for energy (e.g., coal used in power stations). These two are the easiest to measure and control through operational decisions, but they don’t account for most emissions. The rest are found in scope 3, which encompasses all other associated emissions both upstream and downstream. The production and transportation of materials, components, and hardware are all included here, as are the use and disposal of the end products.

IPCC diagram

So, what role does tech play in this? Well, after dividing impact into Scope 2 (operational energy usage) and Scope 3 (embodied energy), international environmental think-tank The Shift Project found that embodied (production) energy accounts for 45% of energy use in the digital sector. As an example, an average laptop has a carbon footprint of around 280 kg before you even turn it on. (For more information on pre-use carbon footprints of devices, take a look at this fantastic resource from the Restart Project).

We can never get this carbon back. So, one of the most impactful things we can do is adopt a more sustainable approach to IT management. Maximising the life of every piece of hardware ensures the carbon invested in its production is used as effectively as possible. In practice, adopting this circular economy approach as a consumer requires closing the loop by focusing on two key areas: procurement and end-of-life.

Circular Economy Image

Sustainable Procurement

Buying new should be the last resort, as it requires another carbon investment. Product life extension is an alternative and can be achieved in a number of different ways, including:  

  1. Repairing the hardware
  2. Reusing existing equipment
  3. Re-allocating to areas that have lower compute needs
  4. Rebuilding existing equipment with component-level upgrades
  5. Buying a second-hand or refurbished replacement

If you have to buy new, consider the distance the equipment has to travel. The shorter the supply chain, the smaller the carbon footprint. While a lot of the transportation is undertaken during the production of the components, it’s always better to buy from local suppliers where possible to avoid additional emissions. It also helps with a secure supply chain given the problems with chip shortages over the past couple of years.

Sustainable Disposal

When it comes to end-of-life, lots of hardware is simply thrown away. However, just because it is no longer fit for its current use doesn’t mean it no longer has a use. If it can’t be repaired or reused in-house, it could be donated to charity or sold to another organisation.

The key focus is ensuring the materials are directed towards the top of the waste hierarchy. For the tech industry, this looks like the inverted pyramid below, with reuse as the best option and recycling as the last resort. The reason for this is that recycling doesn’t recover many of the critical raw materials in the devices or, crucially, the carbon invested in their production. So, by prioritising the top end of the hierarchy, we can maximise the value we get from our resources and remove the need to emit more carbon.

Disposal Pyramid

Data security is often a concern for many organisations here. This can lead to devices being shredded to protect intellectual property, which leaves recycling and landfill as the only remaining options. This wasteful approach isn’t necessary: selling to an ITAD provider can be the best option, as they will securely wipe the hardware before repairing, refurbishing, or recycling it.

The equipment used in the ICT sector cost the planet a huge amount to produce. It’s important that we recognise and value this even when the financial value has been depleted.

Balancing High Performance and Carbon Reduction  

There is a common misconception that reducing carbon footprint will consequently reduce performance, but that this is completely inaccurate. We believe that through optimisation and efficiency both carbon reduction and high performance can align.  

In the latest article of our #CarbonConversations series, we talk about three main strategies organisations can focus on to achieve both an increase in performance and a reduction in carbon footprint. Read the full article here.